The field of thirty riders was set. From the La Familia Cup (1.50m), 24 riders qualified. The remaining slots were filled by wild card entrants. Elizabeth, Deborah and Tara qualified with top ten finishes, 6th, 9th and 10th respectively. Both the team trainer and a team sponsor were very pleased. They called their riding “masterful”. Considering the girls had met their horses two days earlier, they described their riding as adequate.
The opportunity of riding in Guadalajara had presented itself weeks earlier as the Nationals in Las Vegas were drawing to a close. An equestrian group from Mexico had brought a pair of horses and one of their best riders. They were using their appearance as a dress rehearsal ahead of the World Cup show in Guadalajara. A pair of team officials had watched from the sidelines. Disappointed, they had hoped for a better outcome.
After a few inquiries, word began to spread of a late rider switch for their team. Soon, they found themselves speaking with my daughters. Acknowledging the possibility of a rider switch, they asked the girls of their thoughts regarding a switch. They suggested staying with their original plan. A switch does not guarantee a better result. Plus, finding and contracting riders at such a late stage could be difficult, and may come at a premium price. Besides, their young riders would gain more experience from riding than from watching. If they qualified, a World Cup start would be something to build on.
With a day and a half to prepare, plenty of riding remained. The entire field had events remaining on their individual schedules. My daughters had two events and a practice session on the board for the next day. On World Cup day, only a light morning workout was planned. The only amateurs in a diverse professional field, my girls knew they needed quality rides to be competitive. The masterful rides, for the moment, were a series of photos on display in the Guadalajara Country Club from past shows.
jump: Kent Farrington (USA) with Uceko at the Pan Am Games XVI (2011)
original photo: Al Bello/Getty Images*
A misty morning greeted all on World Cup day. The girls followed their usual routine, checking on the horses in the early morning. Their team of four grooms reported the horses had a good night despite the damp, chilly conditions. They added once the fog and mist lifts later in the morning, it would be a very good day for riding. Deep blue skies and a few, feathery clouds were revealed when the mist and fog burned off. It was indeed a perfect day for riding.
First, it was the morning riders’ meeting and the all-important, blind draw for starting positions. The girls had hoped to draw start positions in the middle of the field. They were very pleased with the positions they drew – Deborah 12th, Tara 15th, Elizabeth 16th – it had to be a good sign. Much of the day, though, would be a matter of staying loose, and managing the expectations like any other grand prix day. Wait for, then ride, their practice times, keeping it all very easy.
Tara: from cross trainers to English tall boots
The course build was going to be challenging for my daughters. They hadn’t jumped a full course at 1.60 m before. The Guilherme Jorge designed course featured a 13 fence/16 effort layout. Also designing courses for the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2016 Las Vegas Nationals, this course design had his trademark technical challenges while showcasing the athleticism and grace of the horse.
During the walkthrough, my daughters’ focus was on the coming ride. To ride the course cleanly, a good rhythm was needed: clear one fence, gather position and speed quickly for the next, stick the take-offs and landings. Turns needed to be precise and smooth. Technical demands aside, the difficulty of the course was its fence heights.
Coming into the event, most of the riders had fewer than five World Cup starts. The more experienced professionals were few in number. The most experienced professionals were the three other riders from the USA. While two entrants (Brazil and Sweden) withdrew due to injury, the tightening of the field to 28 didn’t alter the overall competitiveness. In another wrinkle, the FEI suspended the rule requiring amateur riders to have a top ten finish to appear in the official results. Deborah, Elizabeth and Tara would be eligible for ranking points.
With the first group of riders warming up, a sense of anticipation and excitement was beginning to build in the grandstand. A qualifier for both the World Cup Finals in Paris and the World Equestrian Games in Tryon, much seemed to be at stake. Many were hoping to see the road to both championships begin here. The girls checked their riggings one final time. Deborah and Tara were in the second warm-up group, Elizabeth in the third. Each with a few butterflies, it was fairly routine. My girls were ready.
Among the early starters, the riding was very rough. Pulled rails, time faults, tentative riding. Though one clear round was produced, the audience had grown quiet. Their optimism and excitement had faded. More rails were pulled, but times improved slightly into the low 80s. A pair of clear rounds followed. With pulled rails all over the course, no particular section was proving to be more difficult than another.
Her riding was smooth, her turns were precise. The jumps were clean. Deborah was putting on a clinic. Fate intervened on fence 9C of the Longines Jump, a triple fence combination. Her Dutch warmblood barely tapped the top rail, but was enough to pull it. An audible “ohhh” could be heard throughout the grandstand. Deborah finished at 80.48 seconds/4 penalty points. She was warmly applauded for her effort. Following Deborah was last year’s champion, Francisco Pasquel. His ride was crisp, clean and precise. Posting the fastest time of 76.79 seconds, he was laying down a challenge for the remaining riders in this round and the jump-off – your best ride will be needed. After his ride into the lead, it was another rider unexpectedly pulling off rails on back-to-back fences. He shook his head in bitter disappointment coming off the course.
At the halfway point of the event, Tara was next. She rode a quickening lap around the ring before crossing the start timers to begin her run. With good speed and rhythm over the first third of the course, Tara’s time split was a half second ahead of Pasquel. She then heard a rail being struck while clearing fence 6. Tara kept her eyes focused heading into fences 7 and 8, before lining herself up for the Longines Jump at 9. Though Tara had good speed, she finished at 82.54 seconds/4 penalty points.
Immediately following Tara was Elizabeth. With four riders already claiming places in the jump-off, she wanted to be the fifth. Elizabeth cantered her Hanoverian at a deliberate pace, slowly stepping it up. Crossing the start timers, Elizabeth began her run. She was crisp, clean and precise. At the first time split, she was fractionally ahead of Tara, 0.60 seconds ahead of Pasquel. With Elizabeth riding extremely well, the audience had taken notice of her time and the remaining number of fences. It was going to be close. Slightly brushing the last fence, it was enough to pull down a rail. A nice pat for CM, Elizabeth gave herself a tap on the helmet. Elizabeth finished at 77.91 seconds/4 penalty points. Her time was the second fastest over the course.
curtain call: extra applause for Elizabeth and CM
The remaining portion of the field produced three more clear rides to advance them into a seven-horse jump-off. It ended with a 1-2-3 sweep for the host nation, Mexico. For Luis Alejandro Plascencia O, it was a qualifying win in his first World Cup start. Taking second was Gustavo Ramos with his longtime partner Izzy Miaki, with last year’s winner, Francisco Pasquel, finishing third. The highest USA finish was fifth place by Sarah Scheiring. Riding last in the jump-off, Sarah pulled a rail on the last fence. Her finish moved her higher in the east coast sub-league standings for the World Cup – North America branch. In the final standings, Elizabeth finished 8th, Deborah 11th and Tara 12th.
Their first international show, and riding well, my girls are not ready to concede they achieved. Quite to the contrary. They have learned how to be better riders from the experience, and had fun in the learning.
* Photo of a gallery print. The Getty Image of Kent Farrington and Uceko at the Pan Am Games can be found here.